We have a piano in the cafeteria. For years it was locked up, safe until it was needed for choir practice or the jazz band rehearsing for an upcoming show. It’s not a fancy instrument, just a simple upright that we get tuned often enough to stay relevant and got used just enough to justify keeping around. This fall, at the prompting of one of our amazing food service folks, we took off the lock. It has transformed lunch.
As an art school we know that the students (and staff) who fill our halls are creative sorts. They sing and dance and act out scenes from Shakespeare, and that’s just between classes. It’s not unusual to find students sitting in the hallways at lunch reading something they’ve written to each other, hunched over a chromebook to watch a film one of them has shot and is editing, or practicing some of the steps they’ll use in tap class that afternoon.
We’re a school that loves applause, both giving and receiving, and bursts of clapping are common at lunch, during passing periods, and even sometimes in class.
Being a principal at a place like this brings more unexpected joys than I can articulate, it also brings the challenge of balancing opportunities for students to express their own creativity while building a positive community and running the day to day operations of a school.
To me this means not just promoting the established performances, but also inviting more impromptu opportunities for the creative souls who make up my school.
Once we unlocked that piano in the cafeteria we saw students use it. From the most talented seniors, students who have gigs in Portland on weekends and can hold their own with professionals, to youngsters plunking out Für Elise, our kids sat down and played.
All this fall we’ve heard songs familiar and strange. Some days the cafeteria is filled with a sing along, other days it’s jazz or a cover of a Twenty One Pilots tune. Pop, classical, moody student compositions, we’ve heard them all. Last week I walked through the bustling lunchroom and it was the Harry Potter theme.
And something else happened too.
More and more I’ve heard music that isn’t just a piano. In addition to those students who gather around the pianist to sing, outside the cafeteria I’ve seen more kids strumming ukuleles in the hallway, and on a particularly sunny day I heard an impromptu violin concert outside.
I want to foster an environment where students are encouraged and inspired to make music in the hallways, the courtyard, and the cafeteria. My poets and painters, animators, ballet dancers, and photographers all benefit from being in a school where music fills campus. It’s not something I could or should legislate; my job as a steward to this magical school is to create opportunities, open spaces where students can bring their own art alive.
Listening to one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve ever heard of that old jazz standard “Body and Soul” the other day at lunch got me thinking about the other ways I can give my students the chance to overflow with artistic exuberance. They could be big ideas like adding a stage to the commons area of the new building that starts construction this summer, or small ones like putting up the wide swaths of paper for students to draw on in the Quonset Hut that serves as our cafeteria. It could be encouraging open mic nights, stopping to really listen when I hear students playing ukulele in the hallway, or posting images of student artwork and links to student films online.
At some schools it could be setting aside times and places that students can fill with their own voices. Some places have grand traditions, like Exhibition Day, others are ready to introduce new opportunities both big and small. At my little art school it might be as simple as giving license to extemporaneous artistic expression, or joining in on the applause I hear at lunch.
All of these are ways to support students and nurture creativity, ways of unlocking our pianos.